Let’s look at what Justin Trudeau’s cabinet shuffle wasn’t. It was not a big, strategically planned pre-election revamp.
That’s probably what the Prime Minister would have done if it were not for a deadly wave of a pandemic. But COVID-19 made the politics too difficult for that right now.
This wasn’t the big shuffle that might have been. Revamping the whole cabinet would have screamed that the Liberals are preparing for an election, and that would smack of political cynicism at a time when coronavirus case counts are high and rising and Quebeckers aren’t allowed out after 8 p.m.
In another election year – and 2021 is still almost certainly an election year – Mr. Trudeau might have moved a minister seen as a lacklustre performer in a key portfolio, such as Health Minister Patty Hajdu. But moving your health minister in mid-pandemic could be taken as an admission of failure, and that’s politically risky, too.
Tuesday’s shuffle was really about one key move: replacing outgoing innovation minister Navdeep Bains, who decided not to run for re-election, by shuffling François-Philippe Champagne from foreign affairs to innovation, science and economic development – and finally giving the Liberals a high-profile francophone spokesperson on economic matters.
The Liberals could sure use that now, when the big postpandemic issue will be invigorating Canada’s economy. Mr. Champagne is a live wire, full of energy and enthusiasm, who wants profile – and, not so secretly, to one day be Mr. Trudeau’s successor. And the business community, which for the most part feels the Liberal government is out of touch, likes Mr. Champagne. There’s some hope that he’ll make a lot of things better.
This is still not the shuffle Mr. Trudeau would have wanted.
It is, in all likelihood, an election year. Mr. Trudeau has a minority government, and the latest Nanos Research tracking poll put his Liberals above 40 per cent, in majority government territory. But there would likely be a backlash if he triggered one too soon, with hospitals in several provinces growing full, and few people vaccinated.
Mr. Bains wasn’t Mr. Trudeau’s most prominent minister, but he was one of the Liberal cabinet’s few bona fide political organizers and ground war strategists, and that’s something Mr. Trudeau would not want to lose in an election year. He was an early Trudeau ally, and one of the few cabinet ministers the Prime Minister would call to talk about politics in Ontario.
Mr. Bains was never going to be a policy visionary, and although some credit him for common sense, he never caught on to all the buzzwords in the Liberals’ innovation policy. Now, as Mr. Trudeau loses a political minister, he gains in Mr. Champagne a minister they hope can breathe life into the Liberals’ tired industrial policies, and do it in French.
After that move, the rest of the shuffle was about tidying up in as few moves as possible.
Marc Garneau, the former astronaut, was moved to foreign affairs not for a change in direction, but to place the portfolio in safe hands. In a pandemic, when health and the economy are the big issues, foreign policy isn’t likely to be an area where the sitting government makes a lot of political gains. But it can make damaging mistakes. Mr. Garneau is a pair of safe hands.
Omar Alghabra, a veteran Mississauga MP but cabinet rookie, will fill Mr. Bains’s slot as a minister from Peel Region in suburban Toronto, taking on the transportation portfolio. That’s a surprisingly big job to jump into, even for a sharp MP, at a time when airlines are screaming for a bailout.
But then, Tuesday’s shuffle wasn’t all about putting the cabinet pieces in all the right places, and lining them up for an election campaign. That option was not open to Mr. Trudeau right now.
It is definitely a shuffle to prepare for a coming election, though. Why else would a minister who isn’t running in the next election have to step aside from his portfolio now? But in mid-pandemic, Mr. Trudeau couldn’t make it a bigger thing.
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